"P. Val," who rides the favored California colt, Powis Castle, in the General George, has had a checkered career.
Among the highlights was his memorable victory on Sunday Silence after a nail-biting stretch duel with Easy Goer in the 1989 Preakness.
But the 32-year-old rider also has had a number of drug-suspected run-ins with the stewards, and has served several suspensions, his latest last fall at Santa Anita Park. On one of his occasional forays to Maryland, Valenzuela failed to show up to ride Sunny Blossom in the first running of the De Francis Dash in 1990, calling in sick from a nearby hotel and forcing trainer Eddie Gregson to find a substitute rider at the last minute.
Valenzuela has pulled many such disappearing acts, "and never on, say, a Tuesday," said Bill Christine, who covers horse racing for the Los Angeles Times. "But it happens on big days such as the Oak Tree Invitational or Cal Cup Day or the De Francis Dash."
However, Valenzuela said yesterday from Santa Anita, where he is once again one of southern California's hottest riders, "I'm a different person now. I've learned a lot about myself in the last few months. I'm confident and feel good about myself. I want to put the past behind me."
Santa Anita steward Pete Pederson said Valenzuela is taking part in a Winners Foundation track counseling program "and we're hopeful he stays with it. He is a remarkable rider and he has a large network of friends who are helping him. You'd think by now everybody would have given up on him. But trainers want to ride a jockey who wins and Pat is not only a talented rider, but he's also a very likable person. We've never had a problem with him actually on the track."
Valenzuela is showing he is back at peak form, riding eight winners last week at Santa Anita, where he ranks third in the standings to Corey Nakatani and Kent Desormeaux. He's bullish on Powis Castle.
The 4-year-old colt, the 9-5 favorite in the 10-horse General George field, is undergoing his own reformation from disappointing distance runner to stakes-winning sprinter.
Last spring trainer Rodney Rash tried to stretch Powis Castle out the classic distances, but the horse failed to stay, finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby and ninth in the Preakness. "He seems to be best as a late-closing sprinter and the idea now is to keep him at seven furlongs," Valenzuela said.
The strategy seems to be working.
In his first start under Valenzuela, Powis Castle rallied from off the pace in the Grade II seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, and won, beating such horses as Ferrara and Numerous.
By post time today, his opposition in the "George" might drop to nine starters. Punch Line drew the one-post much to the chagrin of trainer Dick Small and Laurel's vice president of racing, Lenny Hale, said the horse might be scratched.
Among the starters are Who Wouldn't, winner of his last four races, and Storm Tower, who narrowly lost to Who Wouldn't in the the Northern Wolf Handicap at Laurel last month.
Valenzuela said Powis Castle can lay close behind the leaders "or come from way out of it." He added that the horse has been showing impressive closing power in his latest workouts.
Powis Castle is owned by Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy, whose first runner, Argument, won the 1980 Washington D.C. International.
The General George completes Laurel's Presidents Day stakes program. Jockey Mario Pino swept the first two races, winning the Barbara Fritchie Handicap on Saturday with Smart 'N Noble and yesterday's St. Brendan Stakes with Cache and Carry.